It’s hard to believe that President Trump has been in office for less than 100 days. While Trump’s ties to Russia paint an incomplete picture, we are starting to see that there’s more than merely circumstantial evidence of a connection to Russia. The word “treason” is being thrown around in the same breath as Trump’s young presidency.
What is Treason?
In the most basic sense, treason is the crime of betraying one’s country. Under Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, any person who levies war against the United States or adheres to its enemies by giving them Aid and Comfort has committed treason within the meaning of the Constitution.
How is Someone Convicted of Treason?
There are two ways to commit treason, by either levying war against the government or providing and or comfort to the enemy.
Levying war against the U.S. includes forcibly opposing the law. Planning to overthrow the government alone isn’t considered levying war. There must be an assemblage of people who intend to use force to overthrow the government. In this way, no person acting along could be guilty of levying war.
Providing aid or comfort to the enemy can include a wide array of actions, from providing financial assistance to harboring an enemy soldier. Any intentional act that helps weaken the United States or aides an enemy’s hostile design can be considered treason.
It’s important to note that the Treason Clause only applies to disloyal acts committed during times of war. If an act of disloyalty is committed during peacetime, they are not considered treasonous under the Constitution.
What Acts Have Been Found Treasonous in the Past?
Iva Toguri d’Aquino, a Japanese-American radio host who was better known as “Tokyo Rose,” was convicted of treason. Born to Japanese parents in America, she visited Japan in the early 1940s when war broke out and she became stuck in Japan. She took a job as a wartime DJ for Radio Tokyo, playing popular American music and engaged in banter that was considered a means to undermine the morale of U.S. troops. Although most later believed that her banter did not undermine U.S. troops morale, there was public outcry when Tokyo Rose asked to return to the U.S. after the war. She was tried and found guilty of one count of treason for “[speaking] into a microphone concerning the loss of ships,” per the FBI. She served over six years of a 10-year sentence.
And you’ve probably heard of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were the first American civilians executed in the electric chair under the Espionage Act in 1953. Julius and Ethel were arrested in July 1950 for heading a spy ring that passed top-secret information concerning the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. They were sentenced to death after a short trial. However, they were not charged with treason because the Soviets were not considered at war with the U.S. at the time.
No one has been convicted of treason in the United States in nearly 70 years.
Can Trump be Charged with Treason?
The short answer is “no.” Treason is only found if a country or entity has declared war or is in a state of open war. While Russia is generally a foreign adversary, we are not at war with Russia. It is much more likely that if the FBI could prove Trump’s ties to Russia, Trump could be charged under the Espionage Act. The Espionage Act is commonly used to prosecute leakers and bans the conveyance of information meant to interfere with the operation of the United States Armed Forces or promote the success of America’s enemies.
One could argue that we are at cyber war with Russia. In that case, what could Trump’s punishment be if convicted of treason?
According to the Constitution, a person who is found guilty of treason in the U.S. “shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined…not less than $10,000; and is incapable of holding any office under the United States.” In other words, Trump would be stripped of his Presidency and likely imprisoned and fined.